Female Athlete of the Year: Nicole Miller, North-Linn
DES MOINES — The refrigerator is the hub of the apartment suite Nicole Miller shares with her three summer roommates on the west end of the Drake University campus.
Miller opens the door to a fridge stocked, but not with typical college-student fare. There's spinach, lots of spinach. She points out the eggs — she is permitted one of them per day, plus additional egg whites.
There are six meals a day. Six small meals. Calories are counted. Portions are modest. A spoonful of peanut butter here, a chicken breast the size of the palm of your hand there.
Miller arrived on campus in early June, two days after she hosted a graduation party in a large machine shed on the family farm north of Walker.
Those first few days in Des Moines, Miller was famished. But she has adjusted, and the hunger pangs have lessened.
In fact, she has added 7 pounds to her 5-foot-9 frame.
Miller pulls out a half-gallon carton of almond milk.
“Want some?” she asks a visitor.
“Seriously, it's good. I'll never drink real milk again.”
Seriously, no thanks.
Miller has endured a question-and-answer give-and-take for about an hour, but another busy afternoon is changing to midsummer evening, and there is stuff to do. Recruits are coming, and Miller and her roommates — the other three freshmen — are hosting.
She empties the dishwasher. She cleans the countertop.
“I don't want this to sound bad,” she says. “But I'm not dwelling any more on what I accomplished in high school. Hopefully, there are bigger, better things to come.
“I'm looking to the future.”
A decorated prep career
1. Nicole Miller, North-Linn 50 (10)
2. Emily Thole, West Delaware 30
3. Mikaela Morgan, Iowa City West 20
T4. Sarah Plock, Iowa City High 17
T4. Jasmine Staebler, Clayton Ridge 17
Voting on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis (first-place votes in parentheses)
Others Receiving Votes (alphabetic order): Maddie Boer (North-Linn), Shelby Hembera (Cedar Valley Christian), Molly Kelly (West Liberty), Sarah Matus (Springville), Abby Phillips (Marion), Rose Simon-Ressler (Western Dubuque), Eve Small (Iowa City High)
Others Nominated (by schools, in alphabetic order): Stephanie Botkin (Cedar Rapids Kennedy), Natalie Brimeyer (Clear Creek Amana), Ally Flaucher (Jesup), Amanda Sahm (Marion), Lucy Schneekloth (Cedar Rapids Jefferson), Claire Simmons (Williamsburg), Niki Sharma (Linn-Mar)
If she takes a moment to glance at the past, Miller will see a remarkable athletic career at North-Linn High School, a resume that earned her the honor of 2015 Gazette Female Athlete of the Year. She won it unanimously, drawing all 10 first-place votes from Gazette sports staffers.
“Definitely the best athlete that has gone through North-Linn,” said Bob Mudd, who coached her in track and cross country.
A three-time first-team all-state basketball player in Class 2A, Miller was selected as Miss Iowa Basketball 2015 after averaging 26.5 points per game and concluding her career with 2,207 points — 10th most in Iowa five-player history.
The Lynx qualified for the state tournament the past two seasons. They were 2A semifinalists in 2014, falling to Western Christian. Miller scored 30 points as they avenged that defeat in an overtime classic, 73-71, in the semis this season before bowing to Unity Christian in the title game.
During the Miller era, North-Linn posted a four-year record of 93-10.
“She's the total package,” girls' basketball coach Brian Wheatley said. “She's got a ton of ability, but she gets the big picture, too. It wasn't just about her playing. She did a great job of involving all the kids — something she took very seriously.”
Involving everybody. That certainly extended beyond basketball.
Miller won 10 event championships in track and field. All of them were in relays, and those 10 relay titles match the state record set in 2014 by Cascade's Abbey Meyer (last year's winner of this award).
“Nicole could have won events on her own. But she wanted everybody to have success and be a part of something great,” Mudd said. “She wanted more people along for the ride.
“Her junior year, she basically talked me out of the 800, to put her into the sprint medley relay instead.”
The Lynx won that sprint medley, and the 1A team title, in 2014.
“Nicole is a hard worker. If you told her we were going to do four 400s at a fast pace, she'd want to do five,” Mudd said. “But the thing I'll always remember her by is her unselfishness.
“I'll never forget that. Ever.”
Taylor Burke, a classmate and close friend of Miller, said, “If I didn't have Nicole to push me, I wouldn't have had near the success I had in track.
“She's dedicated, and very talented. She could have been someone that boasted about herself, but she never did. It was more about, 'What can I do to help other people?'”
Miller is in the North-Linn record book in four track events (400 meters, 400-meter hurdles, 1,600- and 3,200-meter relays) and holds numerous records in basketball. Multiple sources say that her legacy at the Troy Mills-based school also will include something else.
“She is the loudest person on the bus,” Wheatley said. “She's a great kid, a humble kid. But when she gets comfortable around you, she's kind of a goofball.
“You don't see very often when the biggest screwball on the team is also the hardest worker. But, yeah, the hallways here will be a lot quieter next year.”
Miller's high school career wasn't without its pitfalls. Most of them came in cross country, a sport in which she participated in the state meet four times.
“It just didn't seem I could catch a break in cross country,” she said. “It was one bad thing after another.”
Her freshman season went well enough. Then ...
“Everything that could go wrong for her, did,” Mudd said.
Her sophomore season was miserable. Without sounding too graphic, we'll just say she was burdened by gastrointestinal issues at several of her races. Then, a misstep on the last bridge, with about a half-mile to go, kept her from finishing at the state meet.
Miller had an incident-free junior year, and her 12th-place state finish was the best of her career. She was gung-ho about a top-10 finish in her final season.
Instead, her right knee was balky through the majority of the fall. Nothing helped much. Not stretching, not physical therapy, not rest.
“It got to the point that I just didn't like cross country,” she said. “But I wasn't going to quit.”
At the regional meet, with Miller laboring and fading, Mudd intervened and coaxed her off the course with about mile to go. The Lynx qualified for state anyway, and she was able to hobble her way through the course at Kennedy Park.
There were other disappointments. Miller missed two free throws (the second one, intentionally) with her team trailing Iowa City Regina by two points in the final seconds of a regional-final basketball game her sophomore year.
“We weren't playing our kind of ball that night, and I had no confidence at the free throw line at that moment,” Miller said. “It was probably a blessing, though, because I shot free throws all the time after that.”
Finally, there was the 800-meter race in her final state track meet. Miller was favored to win it, but her calves tightened up — she was in the midst of a five-race weekend — and she faded to fourth place.
That was the only non-winning event of the weekend. She won the other three — in relays, of course.
Focus on basketball next
Miller is the oldest of three kids born to Dave and Sheri Miller. Both of her parents attended North-Linn (Dave graduated in 1989, Sheri in 1991). She was part of an athletic class of girls that Dave coached in basketball, starting in grade school.
“We always tried to keep it balanced, but she always loved playing ball,” Dave said.
As is the case with many young girls in the area, Miller wanted to play basketball for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“Through my freshman year, it was my dream,” she said. "I got a letter in the mail, inviting me to their camp.
“By the end of my sophomore year, I realized the AAU I was doing wasn't getting me any looks. I begged my parents to let me try out for (All-Iowa) Attack.”
They relented, and she made the team. Then, last summer, she got her first Division-I offer, from Drake. She jumped on it and she's happy she did.
“This is where I was meant to be,” she said.
Miller already has completed her first college course — an A in Christianity — and is taking a theater class online. Much of the rest of her summer consists of weights, individual and team workouts, swimming and those numerous, small meals.
Next season, Drake is expected to contend for a Missouri Valley Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth. And Miller plans to contribute.
“I've never had a chance to focus only on basketball before,” she said. “I like it.
“Actually, I love it.”
2014 — Abbey Meyer, Cascade
2013 — Kayla Armstrong, Cedar Rapids Xavier
2012 — Shelly Stumpff, Iowa City West
2011 — Kiah Stokes, Linn-Mar
2010 — Jessica Gehrke, Iowa City West
2009 — Sara Stoakes, North Tama
2008 — Kelly Krei, Iowa City High
2007 — Ashley Miller, Tipton
2006 — Sara Clancy, Cedar Rapids Xavier
2005 — Ellen Ries, North-Linn
2004 — LaNeisha Waller, Cedar Rapids Washington
2003 — Erin Sheeley, Postville
2002 — Jeni Frudden, Iowa City West
2001 — Stephanie Rich, Washington (Iowa)
2000 — Maureen Head, Iowa City West
1999 — Teesa Price, Iowa City High
1998 — Nikki Nelson, Mount Vernon
1997 — Kristi Johnson, Alburnett
1996 — Monica Huelman, Vinton-Shellsburg
1995 — Erica Cronk, Center Point-Urbana
1994 — Tammy Brauer, Cedar Rapids Kennedy
1993 — Christy Hebert, Cedar Rapids Jefferson
1992 — Kara & Kate Galer, Iowa City West
1991 — Rhonda Gardemann, Cedar Rapids Kennedy
1990 — Heidi Butz, Cedar Rapids Jefferson & Jaye Donlea, Jesup
1989 — Mary Holmes, Cedar Rapids Regis
1988 — Robin Threatt, Cedar Rapids Jefferson
1987 — Joy Jordan, Mount Vernon
1986 — Kim Sheda, North Tama
1985 — Katie Abrahamson, Cedar Rapids Washington
1984 — Marta Floyd, Vinton
1983 — Lisa Becker, Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Finalist: Mikaela Morgan, Iowa City West
A first-team Class 5A all-stater in basketball, Morgan played on three state-tournament teams. She averaged 13.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as the Women of Troy went 22-3 and reached the Class 5A semifinals.
Morgan was a second-team all-conference selection in volleyball as a junior and senior.
She Played softball in her younger years and was a starting outfielder on West's state-tournament team in 2012.
Morgan will play basketball at Northern Iowa.
"(Competitiveness) is definitely a gene that runs through our family. We go on vacations and we will set up teams and we will just go at it at each other. There's no mercy, I would say."
- Mikaela Morgan
Iowa City West
Finalist: Sarah Plock, Iowa City High
A three-time state champion in the 400-meter hurdles, Plock's effort of 1:00.55 this season ranks No. 2 all-time in Iowa. She also owns the school record in the 100 hurdles.
Plock was a three-time letterwinner in basketball; the Little Hawks owned a 35-4 MVC record in that span.
She lettered twice in volleyball as a libero.
Plock will run track at Iowa State.
"Each sport came with a different set of skills and a different team dynamic, and I think I liked that the most; just changing it up every season, so that's why I stuck with all of them."
- Sarah Plock
Iowa City High
Finalist: Jasmine Staebler, Clayton Ridge
Staebler is a nine-time state champion in track and field, including three titles in the 400 meters. She led Clayton Ridge to the 2015 Class 2A state title, its first in any sport.
Earned first-team all-conference honors in basketball after leading the Eagles to the UIC Large crown, averaging 14.4 points per game.
Staebler ws a four-time top-20 finisher at state cross country, highlighted by a fourth-place finish as a junior.
She will run track at Iowa State.
"I really enjoy playing sports all year round. It keeps me active and it's fun to just go from cross country, right after state cross country is over I start basketball practice and I'm usually in pretty good shape so it helps with basketball. Then the second basketball is over I go into track. I like to keep everything going and stay active.
- Jasmine Staebler
Finalist: Emily Thole, West Delaware
Thole was a four-sport standout.
She owns the West Delaware record in digs (2,014), starting for the volleyball team four years and making it to state three times.
Qualified for state track the maximum 16 times and was a 12-time state placewinner. She owns the school record in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 1,600 relay.
A second-team all-stater as a centerfielder in softball (making it to state three times) and a four-year starter in basketball.
Thole will run track at Central Missouri.
"It's really cool when people I don't even know come up to me and say, 'Oh, I saw your name in the paper,' or, 'Oh, I saw that you did this,' or, 'Congratulations, I saw that you broke a record,' or something like that. It's cool to see that, because I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, someone actually notices what I do.' ... The town gets pumped up just as much as we do."
- Emily Thole
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